Plane tickets out of Anchorage send homeless residents to Washington, Oklahoma and Texas

Since July 2022, the Salvation Army has flown 36 people from Anchorage to other places
FastCast morning digital headlines for Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023.
Published: Sep. 12, 2023 at 2:40 PM AKDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - When Rod Prince heard about the idea, he knew he wanted in: a free plane ticket home. Nothing could stand in his way of getting off the streets of Anchorage now, he thought.

“I think it’s a good idea, probably one of the best ideas they’ve had all year,” Prince said. “I would take up the deal on that. I’d love to go home, the only thing is ... I don’t have ID.”

At a news conference in July, Mayor Dave Bronson told reporters he planned to purchase plane tickets for any homeless resident looking for a warmer place to live this winter in lieu of spending more money on sheltering.

“The taxpayers to whom I’m responsible to can’t keep footing the entire bill,” Bronson said at the time. “We need a statewide solution to a statewide problem. This is a statewide problem.”

Bronson said any homeless person can choose to either fly out of state or stay in Alaska, and that his administration offered a similar option in 2022 with the help of the Salvation Army in Alaska.

“I believe we had 11 people that exercised that option,” he said at the time. “It was to the Lower 48 only.”

The idea sparked outrage from mayors across the country, including Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, who took exception last month.

“What’s new about it is a mayor coming out and saying I’m going to do this purposely to save lives instead of coming up with a solution in his own backyard,” Blangiardi said.

The Los Angeles Times wrote an editorial calling the idea “irresponsible” and “ridiculous.”

But the idea of free plane tickets is hardly new and is used in several parts of the country, including Hawaii, which sent people back home to California, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Missouri, and Montana.

It is, however, more nuanced than Bronson implied.

This month, the mayor’s office clarified the situation.

“When the Mayor initially spoke out about buying plane tickets for those experiencing homelessness, he wanted to expand on existing programs like the one The Salvation Army currently has,” wrote Veronica Hoxie, a spokesperson for the mayor. “His plan was/is to provide micro grants to non-profits that offer programs like the travel assistance program the Salvation Army offers.

“The amount in which he would like to provide the non profits has yet to be determined, but should it exceed the $30,000 threshold, he will ask the Assembly for funds. At this point in time, that has not been done as the current focus is on emergency cold weather shelter plans.”

The Salvation Army in Alaska has provided plane tickets for homeless people for several years, but not just anyone qualifies.

Since 2022, Bronson has awarded two grants to the Salvation Army Alaska that have been used to buy plane tickets.

This is the first time the Salvation Army says it has applied for — and was awarded — $50,000 from the mayor’s office to be used for transportation, rent, or mortgages.

“The mayor’s allowed to do whatever he wants to do, and that’s his own prerogative,” said Denice Delgado, who was once a homeless child herself and now runs the Salvation Army’s social services division. “However, our program is specifically for those [people who qualify for the program] we won’t contribute to another problem, to somebody else’s state.

“I mean we’re going to take care of our own. That’s what Alaskans do, we help each other out, and if a plane ticket is the only barrier to get somebody actually into a stable environment, then why not?”

Since being awarded the two grants from the mayor, the Salvation Army has flown 36 people from Anchorage to other places.

Seven people went to Washington state, five to Oklahoma, five to Texas, three to Oregon, and two to both North Carolina and Florida, among other places.

Five people have been flown to different places in Alaska.

“If we send to the villages, then we contact tribal headquarters to be sure they’re eligible to even come back, because people have been kicked out for certain reasons, and so we want to be respectful of that,” Delgado said.

In an interview this past month, Bronson said he’s doing “crazy stuff” to get residents into housing.

“Like just trying to get people on an airplane,” Bronson said about his efforts. “It costs us at the shelter —Sullivan — it costs $64 a day to house someone. At the Aviator Hotel, which we were renting, was costing $118 a day, and I can get a ticket less than $300 to Southern California right now.”

Bronson said that in the absence of a dedicated winter shelter, hundreds of unhoused people could be exposed to subzero temperatures this winter.

“Winter is coming,” Bronson said.